Academic journal article Management International Review

A Linguistic and Philosophical Analysis of Emic and Etic and Their Use in International Business Research

Academic journal article Management International Review

A Linguistic and Philosophical Analysis of Emic and Etic and Their Use in International Business Research

Article excerpt

Abstract The purpose of this paper is to examine ways in which cross-cultural research in international business can use emic-etic approaches more effectively. The majority of research conducted in the field has been etic, while the cross-cultural data used by the researchers have been emic in nature. This resulted in producing ethnocentric results which are biased towards Western perspectives. We call for a re-evaluation of the importance of in-depth qualitative analysis in international business research. We go back to the origins of emic and etic in linguistics and conduct a linguistic and philosophical analysis of these terms to demonstrate that the emic-etic distinction is not helpful for adequately studying cross-cultural data. We provide examples from linguistics, kinship, and from international business research on German-Polish acquisitions. We demonstrate that what conventional etic cross-cultural research perceives to be a problem is often an opportunity to gain deep insight. We find that emic matters in some cases more that etic, and that the emic can often add value beyond the etic. We conclude that a research strategy employing emic and etic approaches is a vital step to enable cross-cultural researchers to obtain more adequate and meaningful results. While most of researchers have treated emic and etic as dichotomous, we demonstrate the benefits of treating them as complementary approaches.

Keywords Cultural differences * Emic and etic * Poland and Germany * Qualitative methodology

1 Introduction

Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, has an early account of cultural differences and their importance.

One might recall in particular, an account told of Darius. When he was King of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians, of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents' dead bodies, what they would take to bum them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can see by this what custom can do, and Pindar, in my opinion, was right when he called it 'king of all' (Herodotus 1972, p. 187).

Darius did not feel it necessary to add that as a good Persian, the only way to dispose of the dead was to expose them on a high platform and let the carrion crows eat them!

This is a powerful example of the difficulty of distinguishing the universal from the particular in cross-cultural analysis. The culture-specific elements are so compelling, that they overwhelm the universal. If we try to abstract the universal from Herodotus's account, we might come up with something like 'what people do with the dead people in their society'. This is rather meaningless, and almost certainly inadequate to the different cultural specificities that we are trying to summarise. The 'dead' tangles us up immediately with theories of the afterlife, reincarnation, the spirit world, and all the rest. Our simple attempt to create a universal--the disposal of the dead--requires us to go back to the culturally specific, to cosmology, religion, diet, systems of classification of all kinds.

The distinction between universal and culture specific has often been conceptualised in international business research as an emic-etic dichotomy. This dichotomy has intuitive appeal as it has been widely used in this sense by the researchers (see e.g., Adler 1983; Sekaran 1983; Chen and Li 2005; Khatri et al. 2005; Leung et al. 2005; Ling et al. 2005; Zaheer and Zaheer 2006; Earley 2006; Pellegrini and Scandura 2006; Knight et al. 2007; Shapiro et al. 2008; Tung 2007; Hult et al. 2008; Styles et al. 2008). Etic is often used in this literature as an issue or category which is culturally 'comparable' (Berry 1980). …

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